Totalitarianism is the embodiment of a radical evil
which anger can not revenge, love can not endure,
and friendship can not forgive.
—Hannah Arendt, The Three Pillars of Hell
In their headlong rush to commit to magnetized metal-oxides the quotidian lives of history’s least-memorable personages, the American media may have outdone themselves when they interviewed (again and again and again, as it turned out) Parisoula Lampsos, a Greek woman who claimed to have been Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s mistress on and off (so to speak) for thirty years.
Think about that for a moment if you will, and then decide for yourself if any of what follows is true. Or worth reading.
It’s been my experience that the truly great people in my own life have been for the most part quiet and unassuming. I remember a small elderly woman back in college. Most often I recall her in springtime, happily arm-in-arm with her husband, who himself was unremarkable, except for the fact that he happened to be one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known, the Communist philosopher Heinrich Blucher. His wife was Hannah Arendt, the terrifyingly erudite author of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
Her phrase the banality of evil has taken on a sort of shorthand (one might even say “soundbite”) quality over the years but—too-briefly here, of course—what concerned Ms. Arendt was her observation that people who commit unspeakable acts, like Eichmann, like Hitler, one might argue like Hussein, are not necessarily insane or fanatical but rather…ordinary. Even boring. They seem, in her view, to have an essential ability to separate themselves from the objects and effects of their actions. By doing terrible things in a systematic, organized way, over time obscene and murderous acts become “normal.” The way things are done.
When you start to think about it, of course, you get right down to the point: What’s the difference between a man who builds a better gas chamber, who creates a hugely-effective bureaucracy solely for the purpose of genocide, and one who builds a cruise missile lightshow, a “shock and awe” marketing campaign, a blitzkrieg of epochal proportions?
Don’t ask me. I’m not a philosopher. Or a statesman. My mind can’t wrap itself around anything much more complex than feeding myself and my kids.
For her part, Hannah Arendt took an entire lifetime reconciling her own complexities and contradictions: the only daughter of wealthy Russian Jews (her father died of syphilis); PhD in Philosophy from the University of Heidelberg at the age of 22 (she studied with Heidegger, Jaspers, and Husserl); her thesis on love in the thought of St. Augustine; arrested by the Gestapo, stateless after her eventual escape; the first female full professor at Princeton; a radical intellectual in America throughout the 50’s and 60’s; basically a woman of thought who believed finally that
As we practice thinking, judgingly and willing, we become who we are. If we do so well, we remain our own friends, we achieve reconciliation with ourselves, the others we think with, and with reality.
I add here, purely as a transitional device, the fact that as a young woman about the same age I was when I first met her, Hannah Arendt was the mistress of Martin Heidegger, a married man and the father of two.
Fine. Sex. Passion. Romance. Philosophy. Hell, cigarettes, for all I know. But to be the mistress of Saddam Hussein? What was Parisoula Lampsos thinking?!
Well, apparently she was the favorite mistress. You know how those things go. The clothes. The Cuisine. The Pad (most likely now reduced to rubble as of this date, March 21, 2003).
She tells us it was love, in the beginning. That old story: “He was tender, he was nice. He was another person. You are afraid to say No.”
But then, just like in the movies, something happened. Saddam’s heart hardened. He beat her. She escaped, just like a kidnapped princess out of The Arabian Nights.
My God, how could the networks NOT jump on this one? The sleaze! The ratings! The money to be made!
Now an animated middle-aged Greek woman, her hair a dubious auburn, Saddam’s (dare we use the word) whore (he called her “Shagraa—The Blonde) told the world the things it wanted to hear. In Primetime:
- He loved The Godfather and he danced to Sinatra singing Strangers in the Night. But he made time for videos of his enemies being tortured too. “He was happy, happy, happy,” Lampsos tells us, of the home movies. Sometimes he wore a cowboy hat, sipped whiskey on the rocks and smoked a cigar as he watched. “Happiest day.”
- “He don’t believe in his mother, he don’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in nobody.” But he cried as the Allies took Kuwait away during the First Gulf War. “His eye was red, red red.”
- ”He give to Osama bin Laden. He give to Palestine.” But apparently he tried to have his oldest son, Uday, killed after perceiving that the lad was a “troublemaker” and “a rival for power.” When Uday was merely paralyzed in the assassination attempt Lampsos recalls Hussein saying “I didn’t want in this way. I wanted him to die. It was better for him.”
- He raised gazelles and hand-picked them for slaughter, since they were his favorite meal.
- Most tellingly, Lampsos says Hussein feared President George W. Bush more than he did Bush’s father who, after all, stopped short of tracking the dictator down during the First Gulf War. He believed George W. would “go after him,” but—says Lampsos—“He don’t care. He look at the mirror, ‘I am Saddam.’ He went like that. He looks. ‘I am Saddam. Heil Hitler!’”
And so forth and so on. He dyed his hair. Slept with a mask to reduce wrinkles. He used Viagra. And she was with him, she tells us, for thirty years. Through the, unh, good, and one supposes, the bad, though she finally managed to escape with the help of the Iraqi National Congress, the leading opposition group in that country.
American authorities tend to believe most of what Lampsos has to tell them, particularly since she supports stories they’ve heard from other sources. Significantly, however, the CIA and Lampsos disagree over whether the video images aired AFTER America’s preemptive air-strike on Hussein’s command bunker on the first night of the Second Gulf War are, in fact, actually the dictator. The experts say it’s him, though he was probably recorded BEFORE the attack. Hussein’s old mistress says it’s not. She tells us he had at least three doubles because he was very paranoid.
I don’t know. I think I’d put my money on the woman who kissed the face of immorality and called it her own.
That way, when the credits roll, over the firestorm, we can hear Strangers in the Night and marvel, really, upon the latest and greatest chapter of humankind’s banality of evil.
Selected works by Hannah Arendt:
The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
The Human Condition (1958)
Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman (1958)
Between Past and Future (1961)
On Revolution (1963)
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)
Men in Dark Times (1968)
The Life of the Mind (1978)
The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, Edited by Ron H. Feldman (1978)